There is an environmental cost to our data
In this episode, we talk about a huge update to C++, TikTok’s algorithm and Oracle partnership, and NVIDIA’s Arm acquisition. We then chat with senior engineer at Forem and rotating co-host of DevNews, Vaidehi Joshi, about Google’s carbon footprint, and the environmental impact of our data.
Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.
Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.
Vaidehi Joshi is a software engineer, creator of the Base.cs blog series, and co-host of the Base.cs podcast.
[00:00:00] LS: Hey, DevNews listeners. This is Levi Sharpe, the producer of the podcast. We really want to benefit from your feedback on the show. So we’re gifting anyone who submits a review on Apple Podcasts, a pack of Dev stickers. All you have to do is leave a review on Apple Podcasts and then fill out the form in our show notes so that we have your mailing address for the stickers. Thanks for listening.
[00:00:31] SY: Welcome to DevNews, the news show for developers by developers, where we cover the latest in the world of tech. I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of CodeNewbie.
[00:00:39] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem.
[00:00:41] SY: This week, we’re talking about a huge update to C++, TikTok’s algorithm, and Oracle partnership, and NVIDIA’s Arm acquisition.
[00:00:49] JP: And then we’ll be chatting with Senior Engineer at Forem and rotating cohost of this very show, Vaidehi Joshi, about Google’s carbon footprint and the environmental impact of our data.
[00:00:59] VJ: I think it’s really important for us to try to do what we can to make sure we’re educated around this, to educate others, and to hold them accountable because they’re doing a lot that’s impacting everybody’s life right now.
[00:01:10] SY: Josh, are you ready to dive in?
[00:01:11] JP: Saron, I am prepared.
[00:01:16] SY: So C++ is getting its first major update since 2017. The International Organization for Standardization Working Group 21 locked in the final version of C++20 and they say it is the biggest release since C++11, which is a while ago. They did release it. I think it’s every three years. So C++11 to C++20. That’s a pretty big jump. So if you’re not familiar with C++, it’s a core language for Google and Microsoft and it’s also used to create a lot of games to new features of note in this new update or modules and coroutines. Modules are an alternative to header files that isolates the effects of macros supporting scalability and coroutines are a generalization of a function that can suspend execution until a later point, rather than being a regular function where it starts at the beginning and exits at the end. So yeah, this is a pretty big deal.
[00:02:09] JP: C++, what a blast from the past, except it’s not.
[00:02:13] SY: It’s not. Yeah.
[00:02:15] JP: I know you talked about COBOL on your other podcast, CodeNewbie, and there was a lot of press around COBOL as an older language, getting popularity as the COVID lockdown started, but we didn’t hear much about C++, and I think that’s because it’s still in usage. A lot of driver.
[00:02:32] SY: It really is. Yeah.
[00:02:32] JP: Yeah. A lot of firmware drivers are written with C++, like you mentioned, games are written in C++.
[00:02:37] SY: Yeah.
[00:02:37] JP: Big parts of Windows were written in C++.
[00:02:40] SY: Yeah. It’s not the hot new programming language, but it’s still the fourth most popular language in the world. There’s the study that goes out every year by, is it TIOBE? How do you say it? I’ve never had to say it out loud before. Do you know what I’m talking about?
[00:02:54] JP: Yeah.
[00:02:54] SY: T-I-O-B-E. T-I-O-B-E.
[00:02:57] JP: I don’t actually know how to pronounce that.
[00:03:17] JP: It’s kind of crazy that they’re also adding new features after 35 years.
[00:03:22] SY: Right.
[00:03:40] SY: Yeah. That makes total sense.
[00:03:42] JP: I think it’s also really exciting that there is an actual working group and they’re proceeding and improving the language and that really means that we won’t be in a scenario like potentially COBOL where we’re desperately searching for developers to update languages that maybe aren’t in use so much anymore. This really speaks to a really vibrant community around it.
[00:04:01] SY: That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yeah, but it is definitely a positive indicator. If we have that standardization group and people who are actively working on making it better, then there’s a much higher chance it’ll live for a longer period of time and kind of stay healthy and stay up to date.
[00:04:16] JP: I like to think of it as in the world of cars, there is a small but vocal fan base for driving stick shift in the face of all new cars being automatic transmissions. I’ve used C++. That’s your stick shift. You really like to be close to the metal.
[00:04:34] SY: Nice. Nice. Yeah.
[00:04:36] JP: Well, moving on to one of our favorite topics here at DevNews, TikTok.
[00:04:42] SY: We can’t escape it, man. We just can’t escape it.
[00:04:44] JP: We can’t.
[00:04:47] SY: There’s always some TikTok news. Yeah.
[00:04:48] JP: Like the leaves turning color. It’s TikTok news season. So through the last few months, there has been a “Will They or Won’t They” dance between ByteDance, the owner of TikTok and a bunch of other companies, including Twitter, Microsoft, Walmart. They’ve all lined up to have a chance at acquiring the Chinese company. This was due to pressure from the US government and executive order from President Trump that said he planned to ban the company in the US if they were not acquired by an American company by September 15th. As we record this, it is September 16th. So are you ready for the results?
[00:05:28] SY: I’m ready.
[00:05:29] JP: This is like an episode of The Bachelor. The winner of the very special rose is Oracle.
[00:05:37] SY: Wow!
[00:05:38] JP: Not what you’re expecting. Was it?
[00:05:39] SY: Never would have guessed. Never would have guessed.
[00:05:42] JP: Social media giant Oracle. I’m just kidding. Database and enterprise software company Oracle has made a deal with ByteDance one day before the September 15th deadline. Now this is really strange. It’s not a straight acquisition. Instead what’s going to happen is ByteDance is going to spin off TikTok to a new US-based entity. ByteDance will be the majority holder of that new entity. TikTok will be a “trusted technology partner”, which is my new favorite phrase, and Oracle will get a stake in ByteDance TikTok’s parent company. Pretty weird. We’re going to have to see how this works out in the future, but the news I was way more excited about was TikTok make good on a promise they gave us a couple of weeks ago to explain some of the inner workings of their algorithm. TikTok’s Vice-President Michael Beckerman said, “We’re a two-year old company operating with the expectations of a 10-year-old company. We didn’t have the opportunity to grow up in the golden years of the internet when tech companies could do no wrong. We grew up in the techlash age where there’s a lot of skepticism of platforms, how they moderate content, and how their algorithms work.” So their executives gave a virtual tour of their transparency center in LA. And in broad strokes, here’s how the algorithm works. When a user first opens TikTok, they get served a couple example videos. Each time a user engages with a video, they watch it, they like it, they comment on it, TikTok records that information and serves up more videos based on the videos the user is engaging with. It’s pretty standard stuff. Here’s where it gets interesting. Over time, TikTok groups the interest of the user and the videos they’re looking at to the interests of other users and to what they call clusters. So for example, if I’m engaging with a lot of videos about cooking, I’ll be clustered with other users that are also looking at videos about cooking. The app then serves up videos based on how similar I am and my interests are to the interests of other people in the cooking cluster.
[00:07:52] SY: Yeah. I feel like that is good. That’s like a good start, but that doesn’t really get to like the heart of the issue. You know what I mean? Like when it comes to like security and privacy, I mean, that’s just basically your nearest neighbor. That’s kind of how most algorithms work anyway. I want them to get into like the details of their potential snooping and the data that they’re collecting and how they’re using that to get us more. I want to get into like, “Give me all the juicy stuff.”
[00:08:20] JP: Right.
[00:08:21] SY: Like give me the real stuff.
[00:08:21] JP: Right. That’s a good point. Yeah. There’s got to be more than just like I clicked on a cooking video. Obviously, they’re looking at how old am I, when am I looking at it, how long did I look at it. They didn’t talk about any of that data.
[00:08:34] SY: Right. Right. It feels like a good way to say that, “Hey, we told you.” but without actually really saying anything.
[00:08:40] JP: There were some questions from reporters about potential downsides of this algorithm and the potential downside of this is it could lead to what are called “filter bubbles”. That’s the idea that if the videos I’m engaging with are say political, I could create a cluster of interests that are very weighted towards one political bias, and I’m not going to see any videos from outside that filter bubble. It’s a huge problem Twitter and Facebook have been dealing with. And TikTok said, “Yeah, that’s a problem.”
[00:09:09] SY: It is what it is.
[00:09:11] JP: And they didn’t seem to have any kind of response to break out of that or how they plan to address that. Nothing like that in here.
[00:09:18] SY: Yeah. That’s a tough problem because I mean, to be honest, I kind of like living in my bubble. I’m not mad at my bubble. If I have a particularly strong feeling, I want to be around people who agree with me.
[00:09:30] JP: Right. I think the problem for companies like TikTok is that their profits are not based on how well they’re exposing the population to varying opinions. Their profit is based on how long you watch those videos. And if you’re happy with your bubble, if you’re like comfy in your bubble, you’re going to stay there longer. If you’re getting a lot of like conflicting messages or being challenged on your interest clusters, you could just leave a service.
[00:09:57] SY: Right. Right. Absolutely.
[00:10:17] SY: Heroku is a platform that enables developers to build, run, and operate applications entirely in the cloud. It streamlines development, allowing you to focus on your code, not your infrastructure. Also, you’re not locked into the service. So why not start building your apps today with Heroku?
[00:10:33] JP: Vonage is a cloud communications platform that allows developers to integrate voice, video, and messaging into their applications using their APIs. So whether you want to build video calls into your app, create a Facebook bot or build applications on top of programmable phone numbers, Vonage has you covered. Sign up for an account at developer.nexmo.com and use the promo code DEVTO10, that’s D-E-V-T-O-1-0, by October 10th for 10 euros of free credit.
[00:11:07] SY: So in other acquisition and partnership news, NVIDIA bought Arm, the UK semiconductor company for a whopping $40 billion. Isn’t that amazing? Wow! Jensen Huang, NVIDIA’s CEO, told Forbes that the first thing they will do is, “Bring NVIDIA technology through Arm’s vast network,” which could mean NVIDIA’s GPU and NPU IP coming fast to a bunch of providers, including smartphones, TV, and automobile. However, outside the mass amount of potential between the combination of these two companies, another interesting part of the story is that after this acquisition, one of the co-founders of Arm, Herman Hauser, started a campaign called “Save Arm”. Hauser wrote an open letter to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying that he was concerned about the acquisition and that there should be some government intervention to make sure that this won’t impact Arm jobs in the UK. For Arm to continue to be “The Switzerland of the semiconductor industry dealing in an evenhanded way and to overall protect UK’s national economic sovereignty”. Hauser also created a website where the public can co-sign the open letter.
[00:12:16] JP: This is an amazing amount of money. It’s really, really shocking how much it is. The other thing I took away from this acquisition is just how well on paper Arm and NVIDIA will complement each other. NVIDIA is mostly focused on GPU processors. Arm processors are in things like iPhones, home internet devices, smoke sensors, security sensors, smart speakers, things like that. There’s not a lot of overlap in the markets these two companies play in and I was reading that that gives them a lot of confidence that they’re not going to be blocked at any kind of antitrust.
[00:12:53] SY: That’s a good point. Yeah.
[00:12:55] JP: I wanted to ask you. What did you think of these are concerns from one of the cofounders? I know just one of them authored this letter with their concerns about the impact of this on the British technology community.
[00:13:05] SY: I get it. I totally get it. I think that especially as a cofounder, you’re probably going to be a little bit more protective than most people about where your baby’s going in the future and all that. So I totally get the feelings. It does seem however that things are, for the most part, going to stay intact. It does seem like they’re still going to be based out of the UK. They’re still going to keep their UK trademark I think it was from what I saw. So it still feels like there’s a little bit of safety built in there. And frankly, I don’t think NVIDIA has a huge reason to change Arm. Arm is now going to be a division of NVIDIA. So it feels like Arm was already doing really well and having a lot of business that I don’t really think NVIDIA has much of a reason to kind of go in and mess things up and try and move it and relocate it and cancel jobs and all this. You know what I mean? Like it seems to be something that is up and running and doing its thing and doing really well. So I don’t know. I get the concern, but I just don’t feel that worried about it. What about you?
[00:13:59] JP: I don’t think so either. What are the really interesting things about Arm is that they don’t actually make their own chips so much. They’re making the chip designs that other companies are running with and they have a really great reputation for being open and having their chips designs used across multiple manufacturers. I think it’s in NVIDIA’s best interest to keep that in the market. I don’t see that they would gain a whole lot by saying, “Okay, we’re not going to license Arm’s designs anymore. We’re going to use these phone processor designs and these home internet device processor designs and keep them to ourselves.” NVIDIA doesn’t play in those spaces and they haven’t said they have any desire to bring out an NVIDIA home speaker or an NVIDIA phone.
[00:14:44] SY: Right. Right. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. I’m not really worried about it. I’m excited for them. I think the future is going to be really bright. I think they’re going to be able to be empowered to make even better things and have great collaboration. So I’m looking forward to see what they do together.
[00:14:58] JP: Yeah. I’m really curious to see if we will see NVIDIA graphics cards with Arm chips at some point in the future.
[00:15:04] SY: That’d be really cool.
[00:15:04] JP: That could be really interesting.
[00:15:05] SY: That could be really cool. Yeah, for sure.
[00:15:07] JP: Well, turning now to the environment, as our world is literally on fire, we have some good news for climate change. Google says that its carbon footprint is now zero percent due to investing in “high quality carbon offsets”. Google’s Chief Executive, Sundar Pichai, also said that wants all of its data centers and offices to run on carbon free energy by 2030.
[00:15:28] SY: And coming up next, we talk about this Google news with Senior Engineer at Forem and our very own rotating cohost, Vaidehi Joshi, who had an excellent talk this year at CodeLand Distributed about the environmental impact of our data after this.
[00:15:59] SY: Heroku is a platform that enables developers to build, run, and operate applications entirely in the cloud. It streamlines development, allowing you to focus on your code, not your infrastructure. Also, you’re not locked into the service. So why not start building your apps today with Heroku?
[00:16:16] JP: Vonage is a cloud communications platform that allows developers to integrate voice, video, and messaging into their applications using their communication APIs. So whether you want to build video calls into your app, create a Facebook bot or build applications on top of programmable phone numbers, Vonage has you covered. Sign up for an account at developer.nexmo.com and use the promo code DEVTO10, that’s D-E-V-T-O-1-0, by October 10th for 10 euros of free credit.
[00:16:49] SY: Here with us to talk about the environmental cost of data is Senior Engineer at Forem and rotating co-hosted this podcast, Vaidehi Joshi. Vaidehi, thank you so much for joining us.
[00:16:59] VJ: Thanks for having me on this podcast.
[00:17:04] SY: So lovely to meet you. So we usually start at these interviews off by asking the guests about themselves. So other than being one of the awesome hosts of DevNews, tell us about your development background.
[00:17:17] VJ: So I work at Forem currently, but I’ve been in the industry for about six years, mostly doing web dev. Yeah. And I have a lot of sides projects that are focused on different technical topics because I love to learn things and I love to fill my free time with side projects. You may have seen me at conferences or hosting other podcasts, like the one we did together, Saron, Base.cs Podcast and the Base.cs Writing Series and a bunch of other little technical side projects that I’ve worked on.
[00:17:47] JP: So what kind of work are you doing right now at Forem?
[00:17:49] VJ: We’re actually in the middle of shifting into new projects, but so far what I’ve worked on at Forem has been focused on creating a very delightful user experience for new users who join and some of the work that I’m going to be working on soon is improving the onboarding experience for creators of Forem, which is sort of what the company is focusing on now. So I’m really excited about that.
[00:18:16] SY: So we’re talking about the environmental cost of data. So can you tell us how does our data impact the environment?
[00:18:23] VJ: Yeah. I think it’s an interesting topic, because when you think about data, a lot of the times we consider it to be this ephemeral thing, like you have databases and rows and columns. I can access my data whenever and wherever. But the reality is that all data has to have some sort of physical presence. And what I mean by that is our data lives somewhere. And a lot of the times we don’t have to think about that because we are using cloud providers which have their own data centers, which housed that data. So we’re not necessarily directly thinking about it. But those cloud providers that we lean on are storing all of our data in large data centers. And those data centers take a lot of energy to power and maintain. So there’s like a physical aspect to that and there’s an environmental cost to storing all of our data in these data centers.
[00:19:23] JP: So how does the impact of running data centers scale over time?
[00:19:28] VJ: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s hard to really predict how they’re going to grow in terms of the extent to which data centers are going to grow with regards to how much traffic is passing through the internet right now. But overall, currently, data centers demand somewhere between one to three percent of the world’s total global electricity. And there’s a range there just because it’s really hard to find concrete data around this, ironically. So that’s why I’m giving you a range, but that’s a large amount. It’s somewhat equivalent to the carbon footprint of the airline industry, which is also not trivial. A lot of the information that I’ve gotten around the state of data centers and energy use is from this really great white paper. It’s called The State of Data Center Energy Use in 2018, and it’s coauthored by these two really great people, Paul Johnston and Anne Currie, and they’ve been really vocal about data centers and cloud providers. So I definitely recommend checking it out. So as far as projecting how much energy these data centers are going to require over time, there’s different research around it. There was an article that came out in the Nature Research academic journal back in 2018 that estimated that the expected case of the IT industry is going to be somewhere between 8 to 21 percent of the global electricity by the end of this decade, 2030. So that’s from that one to three percent number that I mentioned earlier. So it’s just really hard to know exactly how it’s going to grow, but it is going to grow. That’s for sure.
[00:21:13] JP: Do you think that growth is primarily from more traffic and more of our activities moving to online data centers? Or do you think it’s just as a result of more applications being created that are in the cloud?
[00:21:30] VJ: I think it’s a combination of both. Frankly, there’s just a lot more data than there was 10 years ago. But at the same time, more and more companies are shifting towards using these cloud provider data centers versus spinning up their own, which if you think back to like, I don’t know, the ‘80s and ’90s, people would just have these server rooms and they would sort of have their homegrown data centers, which in a lot of ways is not necessarily easily maintainable. You get a lot of benefits if you move to a cloud provider. So a lot of people are putting their data in these cloud provider maintained data centers and we’re also creating a lot more data and it’s becoming easier and easier to store that data and scale up if you need to. And just the number of people who are using the internet is also growing, right? So all of those things I think come into play.
[00:22:19] SY: So it sounds like this news from Google of adopting high quality carbon offsets has actually worked to reduce their carbon footprint by a lot. What are some advancements made in this sector that more companies should be adopting as well?
[00:22:33] VJ: I think probably there’s a lot of ways that you could take the right step forward, if you’re trying to make an advancement in terms of your energy policies. Google is definitely the leader in this sector. Their parent company, Alphabet, is I believe the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy, period.
[00:22:53] SY: Wow!
[00:22:53] VJ: So a lot more companies probably could be going in that direction. And basically what they do is for every kilowatt hour of energy that they consume, they buy a matching kilowatt hour of clean, renewable energy and add it back into the power grid. And so a lot of other companies sort of are doing similar things as far as buying carbon offsets. And a carbon offset is basically this concept of basically when a company purchases renewable energy and puts that back into the electrical grid and the idea is that you’re sort of offsetting the greenhouse gases that you’ve emitted already, it’s a good thing, but you’re still putting out emissions into the atmosphere. So it’s not like you’re not polluting the environment. You’re just sort of offsetting it. Another thing that some companies have done, like Microsoft, is create an internal carbon fee model, which basically means that anytime someone in the company or some operation or business unit emits carbon emissions because of their business, they’re charged a fee. So that’s sort of an incentive to keep those emissions down whenever possible. And if you are going to do something that creates carbon emissions, you’re basically charged a fee for it, which is an interesting incentive program. And I kind of wish more companies were doing that. And then you can also buy renewable energy certificates, which are not as nice as carbon offsets, mostly because they focus only on the quantity of energy that you are buying and it’s limited to the electrical grid. But there’s a lot of things that different corporations can do and you’ll see different corporations picking and choosing what they want to do and some of them do a better job than others.
[00:24:31] JP: So that’s what corporations can do and obviously there are these huge entities that are managing these huge data centers and trying to offset all this energy use. What are some things or is there anything we as individual developers can do to make an impact?
[00:24:49] VJ: Oh, absolutely. We all really vote with our dollars and when we, as developers, are making decisions, we can be conscious and thoughtful about where we store our data. So to that end, if you’re working on a new project and maybe you’re provisioning new databases, choose a clean cloud provider. Google is definitely doing more to combat climate change than Amazon is for example. So maybe don’t put your data with AWS. Another thing you could do is like ask your cloud provider to be more transparent. It’s not always easy to migrate from one provider to another or from one clean region to another. So you can push your cloud provider to be more transparent with their data, to demand better energy policies if you are an employee at one of these cloud providers, and probably the biggest thing all of us can do right now is find out where our data lives and what that data center is powered by. Is it powered by coal? Is it powered by oil or is it powered by clean, renewable solar, hydroelectric energy? Because that makes a big difference, right? That’s basically like one thing that you can do to figure out what to do next. And a lot of things that people have done around this to sort of empower others is just build tooling. So there’s this great Chrome extension called the Cloud Sustainability Chrome extension. It’s really simple, but all it does is like you install the extension on AWS, it’ll show you which zones are carbon neutral. So if you log into AWS and you’re like looking at where your data is, it’ll show you, “Oh, the zone that your data is stored in is not carbon neutral.” It’s sort of like puts up a little red flag that maybe I should look into it. So if you really feel compelled, you could build tooling and support to help make all of this data more transparent to everybody.
[00:26:49] SY: I like that. I haven’t heard that tool before. Neat! So anything else you want to include that we didn’t already cover?
[00:26:55] VJ: I think it’s really great that a lot of these corporations are taking steps in the right direction, but something I want to add is that a lot of these companies make statements that they’re going to go carbon neutral or even carbon negative and they’ll put out these statements and like make these exciting marketing videos, but they also do other things that are actively like taking steps backwards. So I recently learned that Amazon and Microsoft and Google all have contracts with different oil companies to use AI to unlock oil and gas deposits in the United States and around the world. And so it’s interesting because a lot of these corporations will say, “Oh, we want to go carbon negative by 2030,” or in some cases like Amazon 2040, which in my opinion is not soon enough, but they’ll make these claims, but it’s also really important to look at the other things that they’re doing because it’s not one thing that’s going to solve the problem of climate change. It’s a lot of little things that need to happen at the same time. I think this is really top of mind for me just because we’re recording this in September. I’m located in Portland, Oregon. There’s a ton of wildfires here right now. I literally cannot leave my house to breathe the air. So it’s so important to hold these corporations accountable. And as the consumers of their products, we have sway. We have voices in this. So I think it’s really important for us to try to do what we can to make sure we’re educated around this, to educate others, and to hold them accountable because they’re doing a lot that’s impacting everybody’s life right now. So if anyone out there is interested in learning more about this and digging into the research that I’ve mentioned, you can find all of that content at a little website I created called costofdata.dev. Everything I’ve learned about climate change and data centers and cloud providers lives on that website. So I definitely encourage you to check it out and learn more.
[00:29:00] SY: Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:29:02] VJ: Thanks for having me.
[00:29:13] SY: Thank you for listening to DevNews. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight by Vaidehi Joshi, Peter Frank, Ben Halpern, and Jess Lee. Our theme music is by Dan Powell. And just a heads up, we won’t be releasing an episode next week, but we will be coming back with this season’s final episode a week after. If you have any questions or comments, dial into our Google Voice at +1 (929) 500-1513. Or email us at [email protected] Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.